How Rich Strike might overcome slower pace in Belmont Stakes

Elmont, NY

The big thunderstorm that hit Belmont Park about a half-hour after sunrise Thursday disrupted training for the horses being prepared for Belmont Stakes 2022. It was about the only thing that did not go exactly to plan – or to fate – in the last month for Rich Strike.

“We were going to go out at 8:30 anyway,” trainer Eric Reed said at about 8 am EDT. “They’re doing a break on the track right now, so when we go out, it’ll be about as good as we can get it.”

Eventually, the clouds parted, and the sun came out on a steamy, late-spring day. By then the unlikeliest Kentucky Derby winner in more than a century took his turn around the big main track.

“Went perfect,” Reed said after a gallop and gate schooling. A first trip to the paddock was expected before the first race Thursday at 3:05 pm EDT.

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Not that Reed was too fussed about the conditions. After days of hearing about a likelihood of rain Saturday, horsemen preparing for this weekend’s 1 1/2-mile classic were hearing some hedging from government forecasters. There remains a 60 percent chance of between a tenth and a quarter of an inch of showers, according to the National Weather Service.

The bigger problem for Rich Strike in his bid to score a second upset in a Triple Crown race is not the weather but the lack of early pace this weekend. There will not be a 21.78-second opening quarter-mile the way there was when Summer Is Tomorrow led the Derby parade.

“We’re not going to get a pace in this race like that,” Reed said. “I’m not going to give my preferred pace, because I don’t want to tip what I want. It’s really going to be up to how he wants to run into the first turn. If he decides to be a little more aggressive than normal, we’ll be in real good shape.”

That might be a problem for jockey Sonny León. In the five races he has had the ride, Rich Strike has not been closer than 5 1/2 lengths at the first call. He lost the first four by an average of 6 1/2 lengths. Only when the first half-mile was run in less than 47 seconds did an 80-1 miracle happen.

We the People, the morning-line favourite, is expected to establish the pace Saturday. When he won the one-turn, 1 1/8-mile Peter Pan (G3) by 10 1/4 lengths at Belmont Park last month, the colt trained by Rodolphe Brisset went out in 23.66, 47.24 and 1:11.25.

Reed said that if Rich Strike repeats his own pace from Churchill Downs, he would be much closer to We the People than many horseplayers might expect.

“His time in the Derby, I believe, was 23 and change and 47 and change,” Reed said. Indeed, Trakus said Rich Strike’s early fractions were 23.08 and 47.32 seconds. “That’s going to put him where we’d want him here, if he does that.”

Owner Rick Dawson was confident his horse would be consistent in maintaining a 24-second pace for each quarter-mile.

“I think our guy is capable of running 24s all day,” Dawson said. “If he can run a similar race, maybe that first quarter will be quicker for positioning into that first turn. Studying Belmont races in the past, they’ll back off to 24 1/2 or 25 sometimes. Naturally, he’ll move up a little if he maintains his pace.”

Then again, that might force the Keen Ice colt to do something he has been reluctant to do with Leon. Other than the deep stretch in the Derby, Rich Strike has not been better than third place at any call since he broke his maiden by 17 lengths. That was in the Sept. 17 race from which Reed claimed him on behalf of Dawson for $30,000.

“He might be one that kind of follows the herd,” Reed said. “I just need him to be more aggressive himself out of the gate. That puts us in a spot we need to be in. He can’t be 10 lengths behind the field. If he is, he’s cut out a whole lot of work to do.”

The wild card in all this is León, who has never ridden a race at Belmont Park. He has two rides scheduled before he gets on Rich Strike. He will be in an early turf race Friday and in the one-turn, six-furlong opener on the main track Saturday.

Reed said he was not worried about relying on a rookie Belmont rider.

“I don’t have a problem,” he said. “We’re not a pacesetter, so it’s not like he’s got to worry about not moving soon and not knowing what pole he’s at. He’s just got to be able to have the horse hopefully within four or five lengths by the middle of the turn. If he can do that turning for home, then it’s who he hits the wire the best. But if he’s at least 10 or 15 lengths behind going into the turn, it’s Katie bar the door.”

If anything has encouraged Reed this week, it has been how Rich Strike has taken to the trademark loam that gave Belmont Park its nickname of Big Sandy. Even with its wide, sweeping turns of a quarter-mile each, he said the colt has been able to change leads efficiently.

“He does it easier here,” he said. “I’ve watched him in his gallops, and he’s out in the middle of the turn when he comes out. The closer to the rail you get him, the harder he wants to go. He swaps his leads real easy. I don’t think he’s had any problems with that whatsoever.”

Rain or shine, then, Rich Strike has been pronounced to be as good as he can be in preparation for the Test of the Champion. Or, in this case, the test of the maiden winner who stunned the racing world by stealing America’s biggest race.

“Whenever an 80-1 wins any race, often times it’s got to be ‘because of’ vs. just the horse,” Dawson said. “You hear, ‘It can’t be just the horse, or we wouldn’t have had him at 80-1. We’re smarter than that.’ ”

Of course Dawson heard the declarations that Rich Strike was a fluke. But he made the point that his horse was not alone in benefitting from the hot early pace.

“My thought would be if these favorite horses had been up on that pace and burned out, that would have been very plausible,” he said. “However, they laid back off that pace as well. They were running hard down that stretch. They were going to run really nice times and a good race. We just got the best of them on that day.”

Still, in the 91 previous times the Belmont has been run over the same 1 1/2 miles that will be used Saturday, only five winners came from more than two lengths behind in the stretch. For his part, Dawson is not concerning himself with that history lesson, even as Rich Strike could be rewriting it.

“I don’t dwell on those kind of things,” he said. “I’ve just tried to keep it all in perspective. The excitement of being in the Belmont for my first time, there’s going to be a lot of nervous energy I’m sure as we get nearer that post time.”

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